While knowledge surrounding autism has increased over time, there is still lingering confusion about what autism is and what it means for those who have autism. Especially for parents that are seeking advice about how to explain autism to friends, family, or a child, there is huge value in knowing how to explain the neurological and developmental condition to others in a digestible way. Communication is important within any family, and an autism diagnosis shouldn’t disrupt that line of communication.
In this article, we’ll discuss what autism is and what it looks like, breakdown the best methods for explaining autism to family members, as well as the most common questions that may arise during the conversation.
Understand Your Child’s Diagnosis First
The first step in understanding how to explain autism to someone else is understanding what autism is yourself. Every person with autism is unique and experiences a wide variety of characteristics that may or may not be obvious to others. Before explaining autism to your child or loved one, it’s important to take time to process the diagnosis yourself.
Remember, an autism diagnosis doesn’t mean your child will be any less successful than their neurotypical peers. While a diagnosis might initially invoke concern, fret not: with an adequate support system, autistic individuals can lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Explain the Basics of Autism
One of the most important parts of explaining autism to friends or family is first knowing what autism spectrum disorder is. While autism is more commonly understood nowadays, many people have never had any first-hand interactions with autism at all. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is just that, a spectrum. At its core, autism is a developmental disability caused by neurological differences in the brain.
The ASD population sometimes refers to themselves as neurodiverse or neurodivergent, as their brains diverge from typical neurological patterns. There is a diverse range of behavioral, social, and cognitive challenges endured by the autistic population. Affecting about 1 in 44 children in the USA today, parents typically begin to see signs of autism within a child’s early developmental years.
So what does an autism diagnosis mean for your child? Autism may impact your child’s ability to develop peer relationships, trouble with sharing, strong adherence to specific routines, or disengagement from social behaviors. In terms of how autism affects speech patterns, autistic individuals may experience delays or lack of spoken language or difficulty sustaining conversations with others, and repetitive use of language. Another common physical trait is self-stimulatory behavior, often referred to as “stimming,” which is repetitive verbal or physical behaviors such as twirling fingers or repeating phrases. By explaining what autism is to friends and family members, they can better understand how to interpret and process your child’s unique behavioral traits.
For more information about ASD, check out our articles ‘What is autism spectrum disorder?‘ and ‘What are common signs of autism in children?’.
Explain Your Child’s Autism Spectrum Disorder
As we have covered, autism is a spectrum disorder that will look very different from person to person, so when you’re explaining autism to your family and friends make sure that you describe how autism specifically impacts your child instead of simply stating their diagnosis. Begin by bringing up the basics and then expand on your child’s specific condition. For example, you might explain that autism can impact social skills, and then bring up that your child might struggle to make eye contact. The more specific you can be when explaining your child’s unique behavioral or social traits, the better others understand how autism impacts your child.
Keep in mind that while an autism diagnosis has its fair share of challenges, your child might demonstrate strengths in other areas. Many autistic individuals can show a heightened attention to detail, a strong ability to focus on specific preferences, and the ability to retain and absorb detailed information on fascinating subjects. Autism is a diagnosis, but not the star of the show, it’s simply an element of their personality.
If you care to dive a little deeper with your friends and family, you might next talk about the support system and plan of action for ensuring your child’s developmental success. Many parents hope to find the “dream team” of primary care providers, therapists, and educators all dedicated to helping your child reach their goals.
Here at MeBe, we offer support services including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Speech and Language Therapy, as well as Occupational Therapy. We also offer social skills groups and feeding therapy to our families. Some clients only use one service, while others use all three. Our goal is to help autistic children to reach their developmental goals and teach important life skills, from social to self-care, with the hopes of enriching their lives in the long-run. Your child’s support system can even include those friends and family members you share this information with.
Common Questions or Situations
Once you’ve processed autism spectrum disorder for yourself and properly explained autism to your child with the diagnosis, it’s time to prepare for common responses. First of all, anticipate some level of confusion: it’s normal to have questions when first learning about any condition or diagnosis. By anticipating questions, you can better prepare for those hard-to-navigate conversations.
Let’s cover some of the most common questions and situations.
Is there a cure?
One of the first, and most common questions asked is whether or not there is a cure for autism. While there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, numerous therapies and treatment plans can help those with autism live a fulfilling life. Focus instead on these options and assure the individual with autism that they will be provided the support and love they need to be the best version of themselves.
Expect a range of emotions from family
Just as each person with autism will experience their own set of unique challenges, you can never expect someone to react the same as others. Anticipate various emotions to be felt, such as confusion, indifference, frustration, or worry. Likewise, it’s normal for family members and loved ones to have difficulty processing a child’s diagnosis. Relatives may feel sad or worried that the diagnosis will take over the child’s well-being, but with enough education, they will come to learn that the diagnosis can be well managed and certainly makes your child who they are. By anticipating a large variety of emotions, you can better prepare for a response that will both alleviate tension and provide clarity to the situation.
Have a plan and lean on your doctors
It helps to have a plan in place to mitigate issues the person with autism or family members may have when discussing the ASD diagnosis. Everyone is unique when it comes to processing an autism diagnosis, so make sure to have a variety of responses available to those with various concerns. Also make sure to take time for yourself and consider reaching out to other parents for support.
If you are starting ABA therapy, you can also ask your BCBA Clinical Supervisor to provide family resources to help talk about autism with your child and others.
At the end of the day, never hesitate to lean on your therapy team, doctors, and neurological therapists for help. These professionals, like the team at MeBe, are here to help alleviate any concerns and help you and your family better understand the complexities of ASD.